Measures to Prevent School Violence



Measures to Prevent School Violence


ON Feb. 14 of this year, an expelled male student arrived at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the end of the school day carrying a backpack and a duffel bag. He entered a school building filled with more than 900 students and 30 staff members, and pulled a fire alarm. As students exited classrooms, he began firing a semi-automatic rifle. Staff at the Parkland, Fla., school quickly invoked a code red lockdown. But within six minutes, 17 people had been killed and 17 people wounded. (The shooter, identified through security camera footage and witnesses, escaped but was quickly apprehended.)

The incident sparked widespread outcry, massive student walkouts across the United States in protest of current gun laws, counter walkouts in favor of gun rights, proposals to arm teachers and ongoing conversations among educators and school leaders about how to provide a safe, secure campus while also providing a welcoming environment in the hallways and on the playgrounds.

Several conflicting trends further complicate the issue. While crime on school campuses is down compared to recent decades, gun violence at schools, while rare, has risen. By the end of April 2018, schools and colleges had already experienced 20 campus shooting incidents involving an injury or fatality, or about one incident a week, according to CNN. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that more than 208,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since 1999.

In response, educators, mental health professionals, law enforcement officers and other stakeholders are now grappling with how best to prevent school gun violence, and how to do so in a way that does not alter the purpose and feel of school.

“The current dialog on school safety is well overdue,” CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy said. “This country has long been in need of a comprehensive approach to school safety that focuses on positive school culture, prevention and intervention. It’s tragic that the security of our schoolchildren only seems to pique the national interest in the wake of a school shooting. From the school house, to the state house, to the White House, student safety should be a priority.”

“It’s tragic that the security of our schoolchildren only seems to pique the national interest in the wake of a school shooting. From the school house, to the state house, to the White House, student safety should be a priority.”

—Vernon M. Billy, CSBA CEO & Executive Director

Hard Security

Most recent considerations of school safety are pegged to 1999. In that year, a deadly rampage by two students at Columbine High School in Colorado moved school shootings to the forefront of national attention. Schools have since installed security cameras, limited entry to buildings, added metal detectors, installed alarm systems and developed active shooter drills.

School safety plans, including a plan for school shootings, have also grown in importance over the past 20 years. Campus readiness is now an important part of school safety training. Even so, in California, critical gaps leave some school sites vulnerable. A 2017 school violence survey by the Bureau of State Audits, for example, found that many of California’s public schools do not have a plan for an active shooter on campus and are unprepared for gun violence. The report also said the California Department of Education lagged in monitoring annual school safety plans, which districts are required by law to adopt. (CDE did not return requests for comment.) Another investigation by KCRA3 News in Sacramento found that many older California schools do not have classroom doors that can lock from the inside.

Matthew Balzarini, a school board member in the Lammersville Unified School District near Tracy, said police can play an important role at schools. Balzarini formerly served as a school resource officer while a member of the San Francisco Police Department and is a featured speaker at CSBA’s 2018 Leadership Institute, which includes a panel on school safety. “It’s got to be a good fit; to make the school climate safe, the officer has to be a true resource,” he said.

Balzarini shared his experience working as a school resource officer in a San Francisco high school that had two competing gangs. To help keep the peace, Balzarini said he patrolled the halls, met daily with the principal, acted as a mentor to students, attended faculty meetings and made home visits. He also said he and other school resource officers in the district benefitted from dedicated training ahead of being assigned to a campus.

“Police in schools works very well if the job is done right,” Balzarini said. “Under California case law, resource officers are considered school employees and for good reason.”

In San Diego County, Executive Director of Student Support Services for the San Diego County Office of Education Bob Mueller also sees an opportunity for common ground between the need for physical campus security and for a positive school climate.

“Many schools were built 35–40 years ago with an open design lacking fences or centralized entry points. ”

Bob Mueller, Executive Director,
Student Support Services, San Diego COE

“Many schools were built 35–40 years ago with an open design,” he said, citing a lack of fences or centralized entry points. “Schools are starting to rethink that and I see that as a common sense investment in people’s well-being.”

Such investments can be expensive. The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools estimates the cost for the highest level of security — bullet-resistant glass, gated parking, mobile applications for video surveillance, approved lists of visitors and emergency alerts — to be hundreds of thousands of dollars including upkeep. PASS said the average cost for all of these measures is $312,241 for K-8 campuses and $539,388 for a high school. However, the state says there are minimal upgrades that can be achieved for lesser costs, such as upgrading locks for classroom doors, which would cost between $500 and $1,500 per door. At the federal level, the U.S. Senate is considering the STOP School Violence Act. The measure would provide $100 million to pay for security infrastructure at schools through a competitive grant program.

One common sense strategy, Mueller stressed, is collaborating with multiple regional partners. In April, San Diego County held a school safety summit bringing together more than 200 school district leaders, the district attorney’s office and law enforcement officials. Participants discussed school violence prevention and response, and assessed gaps in training for school personnel and in threat assessment.

Other school districts statewide are also re-evaluating their school safety protocols and using more innovative strategies. In Orange County, for instance, Anaheim High School became the first school in the U.S. to digitally map campuses to provide first responders with information on classroom layouts and exit points in the case of an active shooter.

In the Beverly Hills Unified School District, the school board has been involved in a series of school safety discussions with the local parent–teacher association, the city council and the police department. In Silicon Valley, the Mountain View Whisman School District held a community town hall in April to discuss school safety and protocols for a school shooting. In addition, the school boards for the three school districts in Mountain View also approved resolutions condemning gun violence and calling for legislation aimed at curbing violence on school campuses, including calling for more research on gun violence and more support for mental health resources. Across the state, hundreds of school districts and county offices of education have approved CSBA’s sample resolution on school safety urging “the state of California and the United States Congress to implement commonsense measures that prioritize student safety and environments where all students have the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive.”

In Northern California, the rural Fall River Joint Unified School District school board in Burney coincidentally approved an Active Shooter Emergency Response Plan on the same day as the Parkland shooting. Months in development, the plan includes cooperating with the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department, email notifications of a crisis situation, and training students and staff on the principle of “run, hide, fight.”

“As a district we want to be prepared for anything that might happen,” Fall River USD Superintendent Greg Hawkins told the Mountain Echo newspaper, while pointing to a school shooting in the nearby community of Tehama in November 2017. “This policy offers additional measures as well as some structure to help us plan for the unthinkable.”

Soft Security

While bullying and violent behavior has long been an issue at American schools (California’s first school shooting took place in 1867), Ron Avi Astor, an expert on school violence at the University of Southern California, said the issue became a top concern in the education community after 1999.

“Schools and researchers started paying more attention to socio-emotional issues on campus after Columbine, and looked for ways to improve school climate,” he explained, while noting his own fractious high school environment in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the 1980s before campus climate became a widely recognized issue. “Schools are a reflection of their environment. If they are calm and peaceful, students begin to feel that way too, and data shows violent and aggressive acts go down.”

The focus on school climate has long included anti-bullying efforts and the promotion of positive school climate. As CSBA’s recently released sample resolution on school safety states, “safe schools provide an environment where teaching and learning can flourish; disruptions are minimized; violence, bullying and fear are absent; students are not discriminated against; expectations for behavior are clearly communicated and standards of behavior are maintained; and consequences for infractions are consistently and fairly applied; and the most effective approach to creating safe school environments is a comprehensive, coordinated effort including school-wide, districtwide and communitywide strategies supplemented with legislation, resources and support at the state and federal legislation level.”

The efforts to promote a positive school culture have led to progress in California. For students who may be troubled, school counselors and educators are now trained in identifying behavioral red flags and alerting authorities. (California, however, has one of the highest counselor case loads per student nationally.) Suicidal thoughts, for example, are considered one sign of a potentially dangerous student; legislation is currently pending in the California Legislature to require a suicide prevention hotline number and/or text crisis phone number on student identification cards.

“It all starts with a positive school climate,” San Diego COE’s Mueller said. “If you care about each other, you will say something, but if you feel disconnected, you are less likely to reach out.”

In San Diego County, schools are now taking part in a “Know the Signs” program offered by the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation. Founded after a deadly school shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut in 2012, the organization provides training for educators, parents and students on recognizing at-risk individuals, relationship skills, warning signs, suicide awareness and threat assessment.

Such programs reflect the multi-tiered approach many schools are now using to tackle an increasingly common and vexing problem with many shapes and forms. As these issues continue to be hashed out, and schools confront multiple challenges to both protect and educate, there are few hard certainties on the right way to go. But, preparation, planning and awareness are all recommended.

Said Mueller, “Safety really comes from the people in a place — physical security is just the layers added to that.”

Hugh Biggar is a staff writer for California Schools..


Bureau of State Audits, School Violence Prevention:

California Department of Education Crisis Preparedness:

CNN: 7 Ways to Help Prevent School Shootings:

National Association for School Psychologists Best Practice Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills:

National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement:

NSBA Trending in School Security:

Partner Alliance for Safer Schools:

Sandy Hook Promise:

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Healthy Students Active Shooter Situations Resources: